What it means when we kill swans, the symbol of love

by Michael Mountain
Founder, Best Friends Animal Society and The Stubby Dog Project

In one of the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, an orphan teenage boy, Percival, stumbles into the woods surrounding the castle at Camelot, sees a swan flying over the trees, and shoots her down with his bow and arrow.

Brought before the outraged knights, Percival is told that in this land all life is sacred. Mortified, he breaks his bow, throws it away, and begins his famous quest for the Holy Grail, a mythic cup or stone that will bring new life and hope to the dying king, his land and his people.

Tales about Percival and his adventures were very popular in medieval Europe. The young boy, made wise through compassion, was a cultural hero for the people of his day. And the story of how he finally returns to his dying land with the key to a better life touched a deep chord with people.

Last week, in Melbourne, Australia, a group of teenage boys killed a swan in a park by stoning her while she and her mate were tending their soon-to-hatch chick. Swans mate for life, and the surviving swan is now trying to care for the egg on his own. People visiting the park have been laying out flowers as a memorial, and letters and e-mails have been flooding the park’s office.

A few weeks earlier, in Somerset, England, three men were arrested after a shooting spree had left 40 swans dead. A single wounded survivor was taken to a private lake, where she has found a new mate.(Photo right)

And several years ago in upstate New York, two teenage boys shocked the town of Manlius by taking a swan from a pond and brutally killing her. The outrage lasted for weeks, and crowds of anguished people came to the court proceedings.

One of the boys even had to be taken out of school for fear that he might be attacked by the crowds.

Not everybody was touched by the killing of the swan in Manlius. Unlike in the story of Percival, neither of the two boys showed the slightest remorse, nor even the remotest understanding that what they had done was wrong. And the father of one of them was heard to say: “All this, over a (expletive) duck.”

There were also some animal rights people who questioned the town’s anger – albeit from another point of view entirely. It was hypocritical, they said, to get angry about this one incident when we allow the torture and killing of animals by the millions every week in the name of health and beauty and food and fashion.

That may be true, but the people’s reactions – in Melbourne, in Somerset and in Manlius – tell of a deeper meaning.

For thousands of years, swans have been a symbol of love. When Percival shoots the swan, he doesn’t “just” kill one bird; he kills love itself. The knights aren’t upset at his lack of sensitivity or understanding, but at the emptiness of his heart.

The killing of a single swan in a small town in upstate New York told the people that their children were walking around with empty hearts. And an empty heart begets an ear that’s deaf to suffering and an eye that’s blind to beauty.

In every age and every culture, there is a “quest” for something that will heal our ills and restore our world. For the people who followed the adventures of Percival, his quest began when he learned to empathize with other living beings. That was the key to finding the path to love and caring.

Equally in our own time, when we care, we discover that the legendary “holy grail” is a full heart, made wise by compassion, and that the quest for it begins when we recognize the beauty of a single swan and begin to understand that all life is sacred.

This article first appeared here on zoenature.org.


Michael Mountain is one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society, the nation’s largest animal sanctuary and one of the pioneers of the no-kill movement for homeless pets. As president of Best Friends and editor of Best Friends magazine, he helped to build grassroots adoption and spay/neuter programs all over the country before stepping down in 2008. He currently is the editor and co-founder of Zoe— a new online magazine for people who care about animals, nature and the environment — and the co-founder of StubbyDog, which is working to change public perceptions of Pit Bulls.

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